Sen. Murphy, aiming to expand Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, hears from inmates at York Correctional Institution

Hartford Courant

Tracy Shumaker lives in two worlds — and tries to keep them apart.

One world is her day-to-day life in York Correctional Institution in Niantic, which she entered 16 years ago as a 29-year-old. The other lies beyond the walls of the women’s state prison: the world of her family and the life that awaits upon her release.

But as she told Sen. Chris Murphy during a roundtable discussion at York Monday morning, education has been an “amazing opportunity to invest in a bridge” between those two worlds. Murphy is a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would expand the federal Pell grant program for college students to include inmates. Currently there are only pilot programs for incarcerated students in prisons across the country.

In December, Shumaker received her associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College through its partnership with the Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education. The accredited, degree-granting liberal arts education program launched at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in 2009 and began in York in 2013.

Seeking to end an abusive marriage, Shumaker was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murdering her husband in their Colchester home in 2004. At York, she has taken courses ranging from religion to economics and aims to eventually obtain a Bachelor’s degree.

Through her coursework, Shumaker said, she and her son nurtured a mutual love of Shakespeare. Instead of calls home that could feel “kind of stale,” her mother would ask her, “What classes are you taking? You got a paper due?”

In a prison classroom painted with bright murals, Murphy heard from 11 inmates who have participated in educational programs at York through the Wesleyan Center for Prison EducationThree Rivers Community College and Middlesex Community College.

“The recidivism rate in this country is way too high. Almost half of the individuals who find themselves incarcerated find themselves incarcerated again,” Murphy said. But he said that some research demonstrates that when incarcerated people earn a degree, recidivism rates can drop by as much as 40%.

“Unfortunately, Congress has made it harder for you to get an education,” Murphy told the inmates. About three decades after incarcerated people earned the right to apply for federal financial aid in 1965, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which barred incarcerated people from using Pell Grants to support college coursework.

In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Department of Education launched the Second Chance Pell pilot program, enabling incarcerated people to receive Pell Grants to support educational programs with 67 colleges and universities, including some in Connecticut.

“What’s important about the REAL Act is that college affordability should be accessible to all students regardless of where they are," said Allie Cislo, the program manager of the Center for Prison Education.

Cislo said that the Wesleyan program is supported through donations and some Pell funding, which about a third of students at the York and Cheshire programs receive. There are some restrictions on whether incarcerated students can receive funding, including certain crimes that make them ineligible or whether they defaulted on student loans before becoming incarcerated.

“It’s one thing rhetorically to commit to reentry” she said, but resources like educational programs “can make or break it for people."

Since its inception, the Wesleyan prison education program has offered 140 classes to more than 150 students. Alongside Shumaker, six other women incarcerated at York received their associate’s degrees through in December. Wesleyan recently approved expanding the program to offer a bachelor’s degree starting this fall.

At York, one of the state’s Second Chance Pell pilot sites, inmates and educators attested to the value of the education programming.

Shannon, 40, said she entered prison when she was 19 and has a few more years left in her sentence. Without York’s educational opportunities, she said, she “wouldn’t have a stepping stone” for reentry following her release.

“The importance of this program goes far beyond what we’re learning. It gives me confidence. It gives my family something to be proud of,” she said. “It makes me feel I didn’t waste all these years."

Steve Minkler, the CEO of Middlesex Community College, praised the preparedness and drive of incarcerated students during the roundtable and told inmates that Middlesex faculty were “lining up to teach here."

Shonda, who has been incarcerated for fifteen years and is working toward her Associate’s degree, said that when she first arrived in prison, “I was very angry and violent." But the educational program “helped me to believe in myself, to see something other than violence.”

“The most important thing is how it changed me inside. It made me realize who I want to be, who I want to show my daughter I am," she said. And she competes with her high school daughter to see who can get the best grades.

Chasity, 44, who entered prison in her early twenties, is serving a life sentence. She told Murphy that she is often asked why she is pursuing an education at all.

“I was given a life sentence by the court but this has changed the constitution of that sentence because I can have a life,” she said.

Chasity, who earned her associate’s degree in 2018 and aims to eventually earn her Bachelor’s, said that she frequently helps other women with their papers and encourages their educational pursuits.

“When you’re serving that kind of time, you need something to refill you, restore you, validate you as a person...When I walk into the classroom, my identity is different.”

Murphy told the inmates that he would use their stories to inform his work to pass the REAL Act.

“I’m here because even in a Washington climate that is so toxic and partisan, this is one of those issues that has support from both sides," Murphy said.

Ashley, who has been incarcerated for eight years, since she was 26, has already earned her Associate’s degree and plans to earn her Bachelor’s.

“Whatever you can do out there in Washington,” she told Murphy, “Do it.”